Posted 4 a.m. Friday morning, February 2, 2018.
You don’t need me to tell you that at four in the morning the world seems a gloomy and dreadful place, and I’m sure you know better than to make the mistake I just made, which was to look for comfort and distraction from the gloom and the dread online. But I’ll tell you. The world as seen through a computer screen in the dead of night isn’t just a gloomy and dreadful place. It’s a stupid place. And some of the stupidest people in it are people who think they’re being very smart about politics because by most measures they are very smart other things. What’s stupid about them is the way they use the language and tropes of politics to talk about how unhappy they are with themselves and their lives without seeming to be aware that that’s in fact what they’re talking about. Most of these smart stupid people I meet in my online travels are liberals. That’s because I mostly travel online in liberal circles. Their liberalism is sincere but what they are before---we are, I am---are neurotics.
Neurotics who are people who can’t see past their own hang-ups. Life for them is generally a daily cataloging of the reasons they’re unhappy with themselves and so with the world.
Most of us are unhappy in our own skins. Most of us are dissatisfied with our situations. We work the wrong jobs. We went to the wrong schools. We love the wrong person. We were born to the wrong parents even if we were born to good parents, that is, to parents who may have been the best of people and good parents to our brothers and sisters but didn’t get us, didn’t know how to raise us, didn’t know what to do to help us grow up happy and well-adjusted---those of us who were lucky to grow up with parents or with parents who weren’t monsters. We live in the wrong places. We live in the wrong time.
We keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
This is the human condition, and it’s hardly been unobserved. It’s the over-arching theme of Western Literature, from The Iliad and the Bible to King Arthur to Dante to Hamlet to Moby-Dick to Portnoy’s Complaint, tragedy and comedy: Life stinks. The world stinks. People stink. I stink. And there’s not much I can do about it. The other arts---music, painting, dance, sculpture---are rebuttals to literature’s pessimism. No, they insist, life can be quite beautiful. So can people. So can you. Politics, at its best, progressive politics, liberal politics is, in a way, of applying the message of those other arts to life. Maybe, politically active liberals say, life does stink, but it can be made beautiful or at least we can put more beauty in it, if we all work together.
Politics of the kind we call here in the U.S. of A. conservative takes a more literary view but without literature’s compassion and sympathy. Life does stink, the world does stink, people stink---other people, I mean, and there’s nothing worth doing that I can do to fix that, so I might as well make the most of what I’ve got, and if I’ve got a lot, that’s my good fortune and your bad luck, and if I don’t have a lot, well, I’m keeping it to myself and you can go find your own somewhere else, preferably far away from me.
So, of course, normally, I’m all for thinking and acting politically, Progressively, liberally.
But it’s not looking at the moment, as I read post after tweet after essay after op-ed after status update, that’s what’s going on online. Mostly it looks like people are using politics as a form of what the self-help books used to and for all I know may still call blocking. Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, you may have heard.
People are talking politics as a way of not talking about how they are personally unhappy and don’t know what to do about it. They don’t like who they are but don’t know who else to be, but instead of admitting that, they blame the world for their unhappiness but skip the part about their being personally unhappy. Basically, they’re using politics to avoid dealing with their own unhappiness.
Which is only human. Leads to a lot of stupid thinking and bad writing but still, people can’t help being people.
When I get mad is when I see supposed Progressives and liberals being illiberal. When their expressed political views are their way of saying, I would be a lot happier with myself if YOU would think and act the way I think should should think and act to make me happy with myself. When they’re thinking is literary: Life stinks, the world stinks, you stink, and here’s what we’re going to do to change that, by which I mean, change you into a version of me.
Sun’s coming up. The world is about to get a lot smarter and more beautiful.
The painting up top contradicts my first sentence. The world isn’t a gloomy and dreadful place in Pieter Breugel the Elder’s The Kermess, otherwise known as The Peasant Dance. And it helps make my point about the arts other than literature having as their over-arching theme that life can be beautiful. William Carlos Williams wrote a poem about it, which contradicts my point about literature being about people stinking and being stupid. Actually, I believe that the final statement about literature’s over-arching theme should read “and there’s not much I can do about it except rage, despair, weep, laugh or…dance!”
In Brueghel's great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling
about the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
in Brueghel's great picture, The Kermess.